These parcels aren’t as well known as the state’s parks, but that’s changing
By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
When most people think about public lands in Maine, they think state parks like Mt. Blue or Two Lights. Or maybe Baxter State Park and Katahdin. Acadia National Park, maybe. But there is a whole other category of public land in the state – the public reserved lands system.
Some 600,000 acres where recreation opportunities abound and vast stands of timber are managed for sustained yield. Parcels range from the tiny to the tremendous. Each has its own characteristics.
They range from the chattering cobble beaches of the foggy Bold Coast to the heights of the Bigelow Range From old growth hemlocks of Scraggly Lake to the Middle Earth-like spruce-fir forests of the Four Ponds near Rangeley. From the Richardson Lakes on the New Hampshire line to tiny and remote trout ponds where the sounds of the modern world fade from the mind.
These lands provide countless opportunities for camping, fishing, hunting, kayaking, wildlife watching, climbing and hiking.
Not as well known, or as heavily used, as state parks, the public lands are getting more attention as the Bureau of Parks and Lands does more to publicize them and more people seek out less developed recreation opportunities.
Forests for Maine’s Future sat down recently with Tom Morrison, a veteran state land manager and the director of operations at the Bureau of Parks and Lands, to talk about the reserved lands system. For more information, check out the Bureau’s 2011 report to the Maine Legislature.
Give us an overview of the Maine public reserved lands system.
There are 591,000 acres of public reserved land and a little over 7,000 acres of non-reserved land, so just shy of 600,000 acres. The parcels range from as small as 60 acres to over 47,000 acres, the largest one being the Nahmakanta Unit.
What is the difference between reserved and non-reserved lands?
The reserved lands had their origin in the state’s original public lots. The non-reserved lands are lands the state acquired over the years. In a lot of cases they were part of another institution that no longer needed them. In Hebron public lands were once part of a sanitarium. In Thomaston there are public lands that were part of the prison. The difference is that non-reserved lands have been assigned to the bureau to manage until there “is a higher and better use” designated by the state.
What was the origin of the public lands system?
Originally the state set aside in each township public reserved lands – the legislative lot, the ministry lot, the minister lot, and the school lot. They were put in place to promote settlement, for the future benefit of that township. When a town incorporated they received those lots. In total the lots were somewhere between 1,000 and 1,280 acres per township. It seemed to change over time. If you look at a map of the public reserved lands you’ll see they’re clustered in the northern, western and downeast parts of the state. Townships incorporated in the southern part of the state and received their public lots. When the bureau was established in 1973 by the legislature the practice of towns receiving the lots changed and the decision made that what remained of the public lots would be retained for the general public as opposed to the specific benefit of folks within a township.
Didn’t the state lose track of its public lots for some period?
In some cases ownership would be common and undivided, but not set out on the ground. Timber was being managed by timber management companies. The state had conveyed timber and grass rights management to private entities and the state did kind of lose track of that ownership interest over time. Eventually, when there was a renewed focus on that and an investigation, it was concluded – and there was some litigation involved – that what the state conveyed was the standing crop at the time, but not the timber rights in perpetuity. As a result of the court proceedings and the establishment of the Bureau of Public Lands in 1973 the state went through a process of trading and consolidating the public lots. That process had pretty much finished by the late 1980s.
Have parcels been added since then?
In terms of adding additional lands, the largest program has been the land for Maine’s Future Program. The majority of the acreage acquired under that program was assigned to the bureau for management. Then you have the Forest Legacy Program in more recent years, with federal dollars, often being matched by the Land for Maine’s Future program, that has led to some significant additions to the land base. In 1973 there were about 400,000 acres. Since then about 200,000 acres have been added.
The state’s public reserved land system is managed for both recreation and timber. How does that work?
Our ownership objective, if you will, is established in Maine statutes. It is for multiple use management on a sustained yield basis. It is managing for wildlife, recreation and timber. That’s somewhat different from most large forest landowners. From there we established an integrated resource policy. That determineshow we allocate acreage for certain typesof use. It’s a dominant use concept. You look at the land base and identify resourcesthat are the most sensitive. In our hierarchy you have special protection at the top, then wildlife, underneath that is recreation, then underneath that, timber. The most sensitive use is one that, in order to maintain that resource, you can’t have a lot of other activity going on. In many casesyou can have a secondary use. Wildlife, for instance. Say you designate an area as a deer wintering area. That doesn’t mean you can’t do timber management there. In fact, timber management is an important part of maintaining that continuous cover over time, but timber management will be subordinate. What we’ve ended up with is a little over 400,000 acresthat is timber dominant. Those are the acresthat we calculate our annual allowable cut. We do an inventory, which we just updated in 2011, do modeling to determinate growth rate and how much we can cut on an annual basis. Currently our allowable cut is 115,000 cords per year. In recent years we have been harvesting at that level. When we go through those management plans we identify recreational resources. To the extent that things are identified as remote recreation or backcountry recreation, that will influence the type of timber management that will or won’t occur there. Included in the recreation consideration is visual zone management.
Does the Maine Public Reserved Lands System have a sustainability certification?
We’re dual certified, by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. We’re in good standing with both of those.
Talk a little about the bureau’s timber management objectives.
We tend to grow trees on a longer rotation than many other landowners. And the majority of the acres are managed under multiple age classes rather than single age class. Our objective is to grow older, larger timber on a longer rotation with multiple age management. All that fits nicely when you have other objectives such as a recreation and wildlife. In addition our objective is to grow the highest value products — sawlogs, veneer logs; older, larger material. A lot of our entries are stand improvement cuts, from a silvicultural as well as an ecological aspect, as far as increasing diversity.
Where does the money from timber sales go? What is it used for?
We have a system here that is self-sustaining. The lands portion of the Bureau of Parks and Lands is a dedicated revenue program. We do not receive any general fund dollars. All revenue generated from reserved and non-reserved lands pays for not only the staff, but improvements such as road systems, campsites, wildlife habitat programs, trails, outhouses, picnic tables. That is one benefit that our “shareholders” – the public – receive. The other benefit is economic: employment for contractors that work on the lands, raw materials for the mills. Last year there were 35 operations ongoing, with material being marketed to 45 mills statewide.
How is timber on the public lands sold?
The majority of the wood is bid on competitively. The exception is if there are special harvest requirements or we don’t receive any bids. The standard approach is to put it out to bid as stumpage. More recently we have put more time and effort into contract logging. In the case of stumpage you ask what someone will pay to cut and remove marked trees. In contract logging you ask what someone will charge to cut that wood and either deliver it roadside or to a mill. Then we negotiate to sell the wood. We’re optimistic that we will be able to improve the financial return by using contract logging more than we have in the past.
What kind of revenue does the bureau’s timber management produce?
In calendar year 2011 our income was $4.6 million. Most of that would have come from timber, but there’s almost $300,000 from leases of camp lots and another $800,000 or so from the lease of the dam on Flagstaff Lake. In 2012 we’re projecting $3.7 million from timber.
How do the state park system and the public reserved lands system differ?
The mandate for the public reserved lands system is multiple use on a sustained yield basis, including timber management. The park system is designed to protect the natural resourcesand provide recreational opportunities. Timber management in parks is very limited. Recreational amenitieson the park system are developed; on the lands system they tend to be undeveloped. At a park you’ve got a paved parking lot, bathrooms with flush toilets, an onsite presence, often with interpretive programs. On the public lands you’re going to find remote campsites and privies.
Are more outdoor recreationistsrealizing the opportunities available on the state’s public lands?
The land for Maine’s Future Program elevated the general public’s awareness about the public lands. And I think there’s a renewed interest in outdoor recreation, such as mountain biking, kayaking, and wildlife watching. Our planning process involvesmore of the public. And we have much better information available. We’re putting out new guides and maps to the public lands. You can go to parksandlands.com, find the parcel you’re interested in and print those brochures out at home.
What’s your favorite parcel in the public lands system?
From a recreation viewpoint, the Cutler Coast parcel and the trail along what’s called the Bold Coast is pretty spectacular. The trail along the high cliffs. I’m always intrigued by the high energy cobble beaches. The rocks are symmetrical because they get rolled up and down the beach by each incoming tide or wave. It’s fascinating. I have some fond memories of outings on Nahmakanta– canoeing, camping, hiking the trails. In terms of timber there are some parcels like Scraggly Lake, where we have very old hemlock and sugar maple stands; hemlock that’s 400 years old. I really marvel at 400-year-old trees.
What has changed about the management of the state’s public lands over the years?
Management has been stable and consistent. What perhaps has changed is the level of information we
have. The planning process has become much more sophisticated and the peer review involved didn’t exist in earlier years. We have dual certification now. We have a silviculturaladvisory committee that meets annually to look both at areas where we have some question about what to do and at areas we’ve visited previously. That committee is made up of representatives from a broad spectrum of individuals, environmental groups, academia, and forest managers both public and private.
How can the public be involved in decision-making about the management of Maine’s public lands?
The public has a number of opportunities to participate. Advisory Committees are, made up of interested individuals, with a cross section of interest and expertise, to assist with development of overall guiding policies and management plans for specific parcels. Once draft policies or plans have been developed, public meetings are held. Interested individuals should contact the Bureau to get on mailing lists to become involved or be notified of scheduled meetings.
Tell us a little bit about the ecological reserves, the special protection areas?
Ecological Reserves are designated areas containing representative native ecosystem types managed as special protection areas. These areas serve as benchmarks against which to measure changes in both managed and unmanaged ecosystems; provide habitat unlikely to occur in managed forests; and serve as sites for long-term scientific research, monitoring, and education. Currently there are 89,798 acres of ecologic reserves designated on Bureau managed public lands. The first round of baseline monitoring of these reserves is now complete.
Joe Rankin lives, writes and farms in New Sharon; he enjoys hiking and kayaking on the state’s public reserved lands